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Why Do Climate Resilience Planning?

Build Resilience

While climate change is a global challenge, the impacts are felt and addressed at the local level. Extreme floods, droughts, storms, wildfires, and the chronic impacts of sea level rise and permafrost melt are local – and they fall to local governments to handle. A resilient community will understand what changes to expect, make smart investments, and ensure that residents are prepared for climate impacts. The sooner a community begins to prepare for change, the greater the potential to avoid loss of lives and property. When communities wait until major impacts are upon them, the costs are greater and the options for effective response are fewer. 

Overcome Uncertainty

Some local leaders have concerns about the uncertainty of climate projections and are hesitant to make plans based on them. Yet, if we are not planning based on likely future conditions, we are by default planning for historical conditions, which sets us up for failure. Instead of assuming continued historical conditions, it is prudent to consult the best available science to determine likely future conditions, and revisit the science on a regular basis. Climate models are associated with uncertainty, but it is important to remember that so are other types of models that we use in planning on a regular basis (such as population growth, traffic, and economic models). We are used to planning under uncertainty, so this should not be a barrier to preparedness.

Strategies Have Multiple Benefits

Many, if not most, effective resilience strategies have extensive co-benefits (benefits to multiple populations or resources), making them extremely low risk to implement, even with an uncertain future. Co-benefits might include increased public safety, greater equitability in housing or health, or economic opportunities that come from efforts to build climate resilience. Climate resilience strategies that also address mitigation, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, should be a top priority.

Address Other Community Goals

Many existing sustainability frameworks and compacts provide additional points or status for measurable efforts to increase climate resilience. The STAR Communities Program, Compact of Mayors, and FEMA’s Community Rating System (CRS) are just a few such programs where communities can use the results of this planning process to make progress on other community goals, such as reducing insurance rates.

Climate Change Mitigation versus Adaptation

Efforts to address changing climate conditions generally fall into two categories:

Mitigation refers to actions that reduce the overall magnitude or rate of long-term climate change by reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The primary sources of emissions include the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation.

Adaptation refers to actions that lessen the impacts or protect both people and nature from the impacts of climate change. For the purposes of this guide, climate resilience, or the ability of communities to predict, prepare, and respond to change in a positive manner, is often used interchangeably with adaptation.

When explaining the difference between climate change mitigation and adaptation, it can be helpful to use the example of an impending car crash. Imagine a car hurling towards a brick wall, too fast to stop in time. The driver has two primary tools – the brakes, which will slow the car down, and the airbags, which will cushion the passengers when they crash. Mitigation is the brakes – it will slow climate change and reduce the overall magnitude. Adaptation is the airbags – it will protect and cushion people and nature as climate change progresses. We need both. We cannot simply adapt our way out of runaway climate change, because the impacts will be too great, but many of the impacts are already upon us and will continue to worsen. While this guide and our support services focus on adaptation efforts, we also include resources in Appendix B to assist with mitigation.

Whole Community Resilience

Our experience with communities of different sizes and political views is what led us to develop the Whole Community Resilience approach. Whole Community Resilience comes from cross-sector coordination and collaboration throughout the planning and implementation process. Climate change presents major challenges to all parts of our communities, including water resources, human health, economics, emergency preparedness, natural systems, local culture, and many others. The complexity and all-encompassing nature of climate change mean that we need a systems approach to developing long lasting and collaborative solutions.  

Whole Community Resilience can be achieved using a variety of methods as long as the following three primary components are included:

Cross-sector Vulnerability Assessment and Strategy Development

A wide range of community sectors need to be brought together to collaboratively assess vulnerabilities and develop strategies. This ensures coordination and co-benefits while avoiding strategies that simply shift the risk from one sector to another (or to future generations). Mitigation strategies (those that reduce greenhouse gas emissions) will also need to be coordinated to ensure they are compatible with building community resilience.  

Multi-stakeholder Engagement

Diverse groups need to be engaged in order to explore and address specific vulnerabilities to climate change and other stressors. It is also important to involve and empower groups that historically have not been engaged in community planning, as well as the usual players. Examples include young people, disadvantaged populations, disabled people, and the elderly.

Learning and Improvement over Time

Communities will need to monitor, reassess, and be ready to change course, as needed. Across the country, community leaders are grappling with new challenges. Their innovations play a critically important role in our collective ability to adapt to changing conditions. Some of those innovations will work and some will not. Collective learning and adapting to changes are critical to success.

Overview of the Whole Community Planning Process

Our Whole Community process follows these seven steps:

  1. Launch the Project – This step includes scoping in terms of geography and breadth, developing a local taskforce, and formally kicking off your project.
  2. Assess Past and Future Trends – This step explores historical trends in climate and environmental conditions, as well as projected future trends.
  3. Identify and Prioritize Vulnerabilities – In this step, community experts across diverse sectors work together to determine how climate change is expected to play out in your community.
  4. Develop and Prioritize Resilience Strategies – Cross-sector groups will develop and prioritize strategies for reducing vulnerabilities, prioritizing those that create co-benefits, cost savings, and new collaborations. Each strategy will have clear goals and a specific monitoring protocol.
  5. Launch the Plan – Hopefully there has been community engagement throughout the previous four steps. You’ll need to bring the community together to build support and momentum for implementing the plan.  
  6. Implement the Plan – Responsible parties will begin to implement prioritized strategies, with oversight and/or support from the taskforce. Implementation could be the responsibility of city, county, tribal, or federal government agencies and staff, but businesses, non-governmental organizations, schools, tribes, and other groups and individuals will also have a role to play.
  7. Monitor and Reassess – Because of the ongoing advancements in climate science, it will be vital to revisit the science on a regular basis. Also, each strategy will be closely monitored and progress tracked. Many strategies are new and innovative, making it especially important to learn from both successes and failures. Your plan will need to be updated on a regular basis (about every 3-5 years) to incorporate new information.

Key Considerations for Resilience Planning

Engaging the Community

The Whole Community Resilience approach relies heavily on community engagement and buy-in. By inviting people into the planning process and consulting diverse populations throughout, the plan will be much stronger and enjoy more support once it is implemented. Engagement activities should be creative, positive, and participatory to keep people engaged and bring new partners in to the effort. Special attention will need to be paid to ensure age, income, geographic, and sector diversity of all outreach efforts.

Because climate change is considered by many to be political or controversial, it is often tempting to avoid much public engagement, which can open you up to opposition or unfriendly encounters. But it is exactly because of the controversy that the public should be engaged early and continuously in the process. Many vocal critics of resilience planning simply want to be heard, so providing opportunities to listen and have respecful dialog will be important for success.

Climate change can be a big and scary topic for people, so it is important to engage people in a way that does not create too much panic and fear. Fear can prevent people from hearing the facts. We always combine information about local impacts with positive solutions that people can take to make a difference.

Creating a Fair and Equitable Resilience Plan

A plan that does not expicitly address issues of equity and diversity is likely to, inadvertently, result in further compounding of historical inequities. Thus, we recommend that every resilience planning process engage with leaders of social equity and diversity groups, as well as other non-traditional partners, in the development of the plan. If this is a new type of collaboration, listening, learning, and building trust will be vital.

Many of the people who will be hit hardest by climate change are those who have contributed the least to the problem, and have the fewest resources to adapt. Climate resilience planning provides a great opportunity to develop strategies that help address underlying community stressors and historical inequities while at the same time building resilience to climate change. The Whole Community Resilience approach focuses on co-benefits. Co-benefits that strengthen traditionally disenfranchized groups while also creating climate change resilience are numerous, but often overlooked.  

By diversifying the leadership of the process, the plan will be stronger and more effective. A critical part of this process is building trust between representatives of the disenfranchized portions of the community and members of the planning process.

You can find more information and guidance on diversifying climate resilience planning here from the Movement Strategy Center –

Stewarding Nature

Our air, water, homes, and food all depend on functioning natural systems to provide us with resources. Natural systems also protect us from the impacts of climate change. For example, wetlands store flood waters, mangroves protect shorelines, and mature forests have lower fire risk. Yet natural systems are being stressed by human use and by changing climate conditions, and the more stressed they become, the more our communities feel the impacts.

Nature also provides local residents with quality of life benefits. When we ask local residents what they value most about their community, it is often related to the natural environment. For some communities, it is their river. For others it is the city parks and green spaces, or a local lake. Often it is hiking, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, or ATV or snowmobile trails they enjoy on the weekends.

In order to protect those values, which often contribute to local economic productivity as well, natural systems need to be included in the planning process, even if they are outside city boundaries. Resource stewardship in a changing climate is particularly important, and involving resource managers early on is vital. Resilience strategies are necessarily those that meet the needs of both people and the ecological systems that support their quality of life.

The Importance of Mainstreaming

Mainstreaming refers to the integration of climate change considerations into every planning process and all decisions made. Current decisions are made with an assumption (often implied rather than explicit) of continued historical climate. That assumption gets replaced with the explicit consideration of likely future climate trends and related impacts, based on the best available science. Sometimes people think that mainstreaming can replace higher level climate resilience planning processes, such as this one, but both are needed.

The Whole Community Resilience planning process takes a cross-sector, higher level look at what the most vulnerable sectors and resources are in the community, with strategies thoughtfully designed to create co-benefits and prevent conflict. From there, the information on climate impacts, climate change vulnerabilities, and community-wide priorities can be mainstreamed into department and sector-level planning processes.

General Guidance and Principles

While this program is built on the foundation of our Whole Community Resilience framework, many groups have been leading climate change resilience planning processes in this nascent field, and have learned important lessons along the way. There are many other guides and frameworks that can help inform your efforts.

In particular, we recommend the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) “Toward Climate Resilience” framework.

UCS’s 15 principles to prioritize investments in climate change adaptation:

  1. Consider projected climate conditions.
  2. Use systems thinking.
  3. Match the scope of planning to the magnitude of projected change
  4. Aim for robust decisions and policies
  5. Create opportunities to revise and change course
  6. Ensure that the costs of responding to climate change and the benefits of resilience-building are equitably shared
  7. Decide with, not for
  8. Minimize harm and maximize options.
  9. Equip and empower local experts
  10. Maximize transparency, accountability, and follow through.
  11. Weed out maladaptation, both existing and proposed
  12. Consider the costs of inaction
  13. Work to protect what people cherish
  14. Reflect a long-term vision
  15. Appreciate limits to adaptation and push mitigation


ICLEI Canada’s four adaptation principles:

  1. Balance immediate and long-term needs
  2. Drive your initiative by identifying and following-through on the actions your community can undertake itself or directly influence without getting side-tracked or held back by the inaction of other stakeholders.
  3. Commit to an approach that enables staff to make decisions in the face of uncertainty
  4. Recognize, value, and integrate existing work – both the work that is explicitly climate-driven and the work that builds resilience but is not labeled as such.

Finding Others Like You

Whole Community Resilience is an ongoing process more than a plan. The plan provides a clear timeline and prioritized actions, but over time the plan will get updated and could change dramatically. Over time, it will be extremely important to learn from the experience of other communities, as well as your own.

You will benefit by connecting with other people who are doing similar work. While our subscription service can help you share information and get advice from others, there are several other options available free of charge:

  • Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange:– CAKE aims to build a shared knowledge base for managing natural and built systems in the face of rapid climate change. Just as importantly, it is intended to help build an innovative community of practice.
  • Georgetown Climate Center:– The nonpartisan Georgetown Climate Center seeks to advance effective climate and energy policies in the United States and serves as a resource to state and local communities that are working to cut carbon pollution and prepare for climate change.
  • American Society of Adaptation Professionals:– ASAP is the professional association of the climate change adaptation field. Its mission is to support and connect climate adaptation professionals while advancing innovation in the field of practice.

All of these organizations can provide you with additional resources on specific topics as well as the opportunity to join networks of others like you who are leading a community-based process.